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The Jackson-Vanik Amendment and U.S.-Russian Relations

The Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act denied permanent normal trading relations to non- market economies that restricted emigration rights, and remains in force today for several states, including Russia. At a 3 February 2010 event cosponsored by the Kennan Institute and the Wilson Center on the Hill program, three experts discussed the legacy of Jackson- Vanik, and how the United States can contribute to improving the human rights atmosphere in Russia without reverting to the dynamics of the Cold War.

Date & Time

Feb. 3, 2010
11:00am – 12:15pm ET


The "Jackson-Vanik Amendment," enacted as part of Title IV of the Trade Act of 1974, prohibits any nations with a non-market economy that restricts the emigration of its people from achieving most-favored nation status with the United States. The Amendment originally benefited (amongst others) Jews seeking to emigrate from the Soviet Union.Wilson Center on the Hill , in conjunction with the Wilson Center's Kennan Insitute , hosted a discussion on the Amendment and the future of U.S.-Russian relations that was moderated by William Pomeranz , deputy director of the Kennan Institute. The program on Capitol Hill was the kick-off event for a one-day conference on "The Legacy and Consequences of Jackson-Vanik: Reassessing Human Rights in 21st Century Russia" that was funded through a generous grant from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation , (A summary of that conference can be found here ).

The Amendment was, passed in the wake of the establishment of the USSR "diploma tax"' that imposed excessive emigration fees on those who had studied in the USSR and were seeking to depart. Justified as a repayment of the government's education costs, it was designed to combat the "brain drain" of Soviet Jews leaving for Israel and the West. Since the end of the Cold War and the opening of trade between the U.S. and Russia, the legitimacy of continuing to adhere to the criteria of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment has been a topic of debate.

Sarah Mendelson, Director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies , noted that one of the drafters of Jackson-Vanik considers it to be null and void given that Russia today no longer fits the criteria: rather, a nation that this Amendment would apply to now would be North Korea. Mendelson noted that the human rights abuses that gave rise to the Amendment still occur in Russia, but that despite the Jackson-Vanik Amendment the "cost of impunity has been virtually nil for the Medvedev-Putin Administration." She concluded that the Amendment as it stands is irrelevant because it does not apply to modern Russia. However, she suggested that the United States still needs to address the continuing grievous human rights violations, especially in respect to free speech that currently exist in Russia. Mendelson argued that in order to get Russia's attention on these matters, the U.S. must reestablish its own credibility with regard to human rights. According to Mendleson, this means that the United States will need to strictly adhere to the Geneva Convention and close Guantánamo Bay.

Sam Kliger , Director of the American Jewish Congress, suggested that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment should be repealed without any demands on the Russian government. He noted that the climate of the Cold War no longer exists, and that Russia now allows free travel and has elements of a free market economy and democratization. Therefore, it should no longer be subject to the terms of the Amendment. Kliger also touched on the issue of American trade with China, noting that there does seem to be a double standard in the application of Jackson-Vanik given China's ongoing human rights abuses. This double standard is widely applied, as the United States also trades with seven former Soviet Republics with poor human rights records and no free market. He noted that repealing the Amendment could foster goodwill between the two nations and set American-Russian relations on a positive course. Kliger's point of view was supported by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who also argued that the Amendment should no longer apply to Russia

Karinna Moskalenko, Director of the International Protection Center, suggested that Congress should only repeal Jackson-Vanik if Russia agrees to free its political prisoners. Moskalenko agreed that while the United States should make such demands of the Kremlin, the nation also needs to be conscious of its own human rights performance, as "there are no ideal countries in this world. There are countries which tend to be ideal, want to be ideal, and demonstrate their will to be ideal, and probably the United States has the chance to be on this very short list of countries."

Internationally renowned Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who attended the program, concurred that the repeal of Jackson-Vanik should only be done if Russia agrees to adhere to certain conditions. Ms. Alexeyeva further stated that she believed that in regards to Sino-American relations, the Congress should pass a similar Amendment aimed specifically at China.

By: Caroline Moh
David Klaus, Consulting Director, Wilson Center on the Hill
Kent Hughes, Director, Program on America and the Global Economy



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